Gilbey on Film: Grace Jones at the cinema

The singer has never had the film roles she deserves.

So Grace Jones stole the show at the Queen’s Jubilee concert, all hoops and hoopla. That news has got to be up there with “Sun rises”, “Grass still green” and “Ocean wet today.” What did you expect? Tuning in to Jones’s blissful extra-terrestrial frequency just for those four minutes of “Slave to the Rhythm” reminds me that, as far as the movies are concerned, Grace Jones is the one that got away. Cinema held on to a piece of Bowie and Jagger, Madonna and Prince, even Dylan, but no Grace Jones. Not yet.

Oh, she has appeared in films, and even, in some cases (such as the raunchy vampire movie Vamp), she has given off low-voltage jolts of that electricity which makes her such a compelling stage performer. But Bowie at least has The Man Who Fell to Earth; Jagger has Performance; Madonna has Desperately Seeking Susan (an inconsequential film but a part that decisively crystallised and fed her emerging persona); Prince has Purple Rain and Dylan has Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Keynote films, testaments to charisma, proof enough that these performers possessed a personality and a visual sense of themselves which could not be contained on vinyl alone.

Despite the tacky pleasures of Vamp, Grace Jones doesn’t have one of those movies to her name. She was used as a novelty act in Roger Moore’s final Bond film, A View to a Kill, like an exotic animal hired for display purposes only at a freemasons’ ball. (What a shame that Duran Duran were guilty of - I mean, responsible for - that film’s theme song even though Jones was in the building, so to speak.) She popped up in other, even more rickety projects unworthy of her jungle-cat elegance and Frankenstein’s-monster menace: Conan the Destroyer, a sequel which no one wanted, in which she had to suffer the indignity of competing with Arnold Schwarzenegger for the camera’s attention; the Eddie Murphy rom-com Boomerang. I have fond memories of seeing the oddball thriller Siesta and Alex Cox’s western Straight to Hell, both in the late 1980s, but in both instances Jones was lost in the celebrity smorgasbord, one special guest star among many. And if there’s one thing you should never do with Jones, it’s overlook her.

Mostly she has chosen wayward or unpromising projects that gave her no chance to dazzle as she does on stage. I’d love to know why. Were better offers not extended to her? Her background is in theatre; she also starred in the 1973 Blaxploitation film Gordon’s War (which I haven’t seen). But that’s slim pickings for an artist so steeped in the visual. The fact that her music gives such good cinema only makes me ache even more to see her in a juicy role on screen. Our lists of favourite movies are restricted to celluloid, but it must be acknowledged that Jones’s Nightclubbing album (like Lou Reed’s Berlin or Ariel Pink’s Worn Copy) is one of the most stubbornly haunting films never made. David Lynch or Paul Schrader or the Jane Campion of In the Cut could have cooked up a role worthy of her - they could have made a whole movie based on the Nightclubbing album cover of her square, sculpted, metallic face - but would they have been ready for the creative battles that might have ensued on set? Our one hope could be that Matthew Barney is preparing a Grace Jones vehicle, but before I get too excited I have to keep reminding myself that wanting it doesn’t make it so.

Grace Jones performs at the Queen's Jubilee Concert on 4 June (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle